When Norm Crosby says he “buried” pioneering television comedian Milton Berle, he’s being literal. “I was the MC at his funeral. We were very close. I was lucky because the people I grew up with on TV that I admired and who inspired me to be a comedian became my peers and close friends: Milton Berle, Shecky Green, Jan Murray, Red Buttons, Don Rickles.”
CROSBY KIDS: Father of comedy Norm Crosby joins young ’uns like Lewis Black and Denis Leary at this year’s Comedy Fest.
Crosby, comedy’s king of the malapropism, came to fame in the ’60s and ’70s as a constant presence on the tube and with albums like ’67’s She Wouldn’t Eat the Mushrooms. In turn he inspired a generation that includes Robin Williams and George Carlin. Now the Dorcester native — who has laced his career accomplishments with a host of other honors, like a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Presidential Achievement Award, and laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — will come here on September 16, the day after his 79th birthday, as part of the Boston Comedy Festival. He’ll be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award during the contest finals of the “Boston Comedy Festival” at Emerson College’s Cutler Majestic Theatre.
The seventh annual festival begins September 10; the complete line-up, including the week-long competition at various locations, is available at www.bostoncomedyfestival.com. There’ll be a celebration of 30 years of comedy at Emerson College with Denis Leary, Anthony Clark, Bill Dana, Bill Burr, and Eddie Brill. (The school includes Jay Leno, Henry Winkler, Steven Wright, and Andrea Martin among its alums.) Satirist Lewis Black will headline the Majestic September 15 and 16 with openers John Bowman, Nick DiPaolo, Kenny Rogerson, Jim McCue, and Des Bishop.
Crosby carved his niche in comedy history with wordplay about drinking “decapitated coffee” and sharing “inflammation” with co-workers. Although he was floating off the Connecticut coast on a friend’s yacht when we spoke by phone, he’s still playing Vegas (where he became pals with Elvis), major cruise lines, high-paying corporate gigs, and charity events including an annual stint on Jerry Lewis’s muscular-dystrophy telethon. “I started my career around New England, working all the little weekend clubs in Springfield, Revere, Lowell, and Worcester. There were no comedy clubs. These were places where the mother was the cook, the father was the manager, the son was the waiter, and the daughter was the waitress. It was a great education.”
Crosby became a favorite of local politicians by playing charity dinners hosted by the mayor and the police chief. After seeing him at a number of such affairs, wealthy theater mogul E.M. Loew invited him to play his Latin Quarter nightclub in New York for a weekend. “Until that point I had been doing material I got off TV. Nobody in Holyoke cared if you did a couple jokes you just heard Milton Berle do. But I realized New York City was where all the people I was stealing from were. So that’s when I came up with using the malapropisms and mispronunciations and distorting historical facts. The first local audiences I tried it on didn’t really get it. But the audiences in New York knew I was doing this as satire. I ended up staying at the Latin Quarter for 18 weeks. Walter Winchell, the most powerful critic in America, wrote a glowing review of the show, and by the time the run was over I had a manager, a booking agent, TV appearances. I got my whole career from that engagement.”